Neonatal jaundice is a common condition, affecting some 14 million newborns annually. Symptoms such as yellowing skin and poor appetite can alarm new parents, but jaundice is relatively simple to treat with a light bath. Non-invasive phototherapy shines high-intensity blue light on an affected infant’s skin, quickly breaking down excess bilirubin in the blood.
That’s the standard treatment, at least, in hospitals where the power grid is stable and the cost of replacing burned-out fluorescent lights isn’t prohibitive. Not so in public hospitals and rural health centers in India and other less developed countries. More than five million cases of neonatal jaundice go untreated annually, putting babies at risk of brain damage or even death.
D-Rev, a nonprofit technology incubator based in San Francisco, aims to close this treatment gap with a specially designed LED lamp that sells for a fraction of the price of traditional fluorescent devices. Its breakthrough phototherapy product—called Brilliance—is right at the sweet spot for D-Rev. It solves a big problem with a low-budget, high-quality product. “We want to design products that are on par with or better than the best on the market,” explains D-Rev CEO Krista Donaldson, “but also affordable so that there is market demand.”
D-Rev focuses its expertise on the design side of the equation, enlisting strategic partners to get products to market. Brilliance was developed in collaboration with neonatal specialists from Stanford University School of Medicine to meet exacting standards for low-resource regions. The product sells for 22,000 rupees (~$400), about a tenth of the cost of comparable devices. It is more energy efficient than fluorescent models, can run on a backup battery, and requires little maintenance.
Design features of Brilliance overcome common barriers to treatment that Donaldson observed during research trips to Indian hospitals. She saw expensive phototherapy devices sitting unused because of burned-out bulbs or providing ineffective treatment because of power outages. “We also saw a lot of homemade devices,” Donaldson adds, “but many were providing less than 10 percent of the light output needed for treatment. If you had children who were really sick, they might not get cured under those lights.”
To get its potentially lifesaving product to market, D-Rev has licensed Brilliance to Phoenix Medical Systems, a leading, for-profit health care company based in Chennai, India. Phoenix handles manufacturing along with sales and service. In return for subsidized R&D from D-Rev, the Indian company has agreed to cap the sales price at 22,000 rupees in emerging markets. “Our partnership with D-Rev represents innovation not only in the medical device field, but in bridging continents and sectors,” says V. Sashi Kumar, managing director of Phoenix Medical Systems, in a prepared statement. The first Brilliance lot was 30 units, which sold out in less than a month. Phoenix is starting on a second lot of 80 units to ship in early 2013.
“We have to work with partners like Phoenix that have the market know-how,” adds Donaldson. Since taking the helm of D-Rev in 2009, she has steered the five-year-old nonprofit to emphasize a market-driven approach along with design innovation. Otherwise, she adds, “you can wind up with a lot of cool technology that’s not going anywhere. If there’s market demand, these products can be sustainable.”
Neonatal specialists like Dr. Vinod Bhutani, a professor at Stanford University School of Medicine and advisor to D-Rev, recognize the far-reaching benefits of affordable innovation. Preventing brain damage from a preventable condition like jaundice “is within our grasp,” he says. “But access to specific therapeutic light is limited by the same factors that create barriers to maternal and child health care in resource-constrained communities worldwide. If we can shed light in every nook and cranny where newborns are cared for, we would coincidentally save lives of babies from a host of conditions other than jaundice. Unfettered access to light could truly ‘flatten’ the discrepancies in newborn healthcare,” he says.
D-Rev’s strategic focus on markets and sustainability, while also emphasizing “cheaper and better” design for people living on less than $4 a day, appeals to funders like the Mulago Foundation. It has been an early supporter of D-Rev, praising the organization for its robust business model as well as its design process of rapid prototyping and field testing.
Although Donaldson expects that most products will be designed in-house by her team of engineers, technologists, and development experts, D-Rev is receptive to others’ ideas. For example, ReMotion is an affordable prosthetic knee that has the potential to improve lives for amputees in the developing world. The prototype emerged from a bioengineering class at Stanford and is now a D-Rev product. “What often happens in schools is that students come up with a great prototype, but designing it for commercialization is entirely different,” Donaldson says. The knee designers have merged their efforts with D-Rev to make sure their product reaches the people who need it most.